Eugene Buchanan: Skiing for tree art

Eugene Buchanan
An example of sheepherder tree art carved into area aspens. Some of the artwork is more voluptuous than others. Photo courtesy of Kent Vertrees
Courtesy Photo

I’m skiing through a grove of aspen trees high on Buffalo Pass, a warm spell texturing the snow — a cross between powder and corn. The combo seems oddly fitting, as I’m searching for a phonetic cross between the two: porn. More specifically, hidden stashes of erotic tree art etched into area’s aspens by long lost — and obviously lonely — sheepherders.

We know they’re around here somewhere. Guide friends at Steamboat Powdercats had told us about a particular cluster, and we’re here to see them for our own perverted selves.

“They’re a little harder to find than some of the others,” they advised. “They’re also a little more hard core, so we don’t always take our clients there.”

That was all we needed to hitch a ride on a snowmobile, skin up a ridge and begin our quest. Ski powder for erotic tree art … who wouldn’t buckle up for that?

“That looks like it,” said my friend Dave, veering left into a grove of aspens.

We stop in a cluster of trees and glance around. At first, all we see sticking out of the virgin snow are the blank, white trunks of thick aspen. Then our eyes discern something markedly man-made — and less virginal. There, on a particularly consistent trunk, is a sultry looking masterpiece: a voluptuous and obviously well-endowed naked woman, complete with a knot serving as a navel.

The curves of her hips follow the pattern of our ski tracks: simple, suggestive and smooth. One elbow is cocked into the air in a “Come hither, big boy” pose, her hand disappearing into a crop of Betty Rubble hair.

The other elbow forms an erotic arc next to her hip, her hand resting provocatively on her derriere. The breasts aren’t abrasive or even obnoxious. They look as if they belong on the drawing every bit as much as the bark belongs on the tree.

It’s Marilynn and Zsa Zsa rolled into one is-it-hot-in-here package. Since the lovestruck sheepherder carved it during summer grazing season, winter’s high heels have elevated our vantage, so my eyes are above her torso.

While this particular carving is well off the beaten path, there are easier places to carve turns to view tree carvings. But as with love, they’re often subject to the winds of change. One such spot was a popular Powdercats drop-off point called Naked Lady Tree, which showed another buxomed beauty baring all to skiersby. But the tree fell down, carrying with it the carver’s dreams.

Indeed, the amorous artwork has a limited lifespan. The average aspen lives 100 years, tops. With the region’s etchings appearing in earnest in the early 1920s, many of the drawings’ days are numbered, which is a shame for voyeuristic skiers.

“Erotica is definitely the predominant theme of most of the area’s aspen tree carvings,” said Angie KenCarin, former district archaeologist for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, who recorded the art for more than 15 years.

“There are some Spanish narratives and religious drawings, but most of it is pretty sexual. I think these guys were pretty lonely. “They were bored with nothing to do,” she added. “But what do you expect — they sit with sheep all day.”

Anything 50 years or older on federal lands has to be recorded, so scouring the countryside for erotic art used to be all in a day’s work for KenCarin. Earlier, I sat in her office sifting through hundreds of digital photos she had recorded of area tree art. Pictures of snakes, a Charlie Brown-looking kid and a giant mosquito pixeled to life, as did an etching from California Park with the words Primero and Segundo and a marking from ETA, a Basque underground movement.

All of them provide a window into the past.

“The dates are great for us,” she said. “A bunch are from the same timeframe in the 1920s, when we had a big influx of sheep grazing from the north along the Wyoming Trail. Cataloging the art helps us mark the old stock driveway corridors.”

The art, she added, also depicts things that were bothering them. Written in Spanish, one reads, “You couldn’t pay me $1 million dollars to come back here.”

Another Spanish entry reads, “It is so sad to be alone.” But women, in varying states of undress, are the clear front runners.

“I think carving on trees was just a really easy way for them to express their feelings,” she said. “And aspens are the natural outlet — their bark makes a great canvas.”

While she admitted today’s sheepherders “aren’t doing it to the extent they used to — you don’t see very much new stuff,” the etchings are predominant enough that local landowner Limon Orton once pursued securing a grant to produce photos of them. KenCarin and local photographer Jupiter Jones also contemplated an Arbor Erotica coffee table book highlighting local hotspots, including one near Hahn’s Peak harboring a patch dubbed Porno Alley. The annual Wooden Ski Rendezvous at Columbine Cabins often organizes a ski tour there.

“They’re all over the place,” said Jones, who has compiled a vast photo collection of the art. “You can find them about anywhere sheep would go. They also seem to be on vantage points, carved as they moved around to different grazing grounds.”

In one area, he added, many appear to have been drawn by the same person. “Whoever he was,” Jones said, “he was a very talented artist.”

Whether the etching before us on Buff Pass belongs to this same artist or not, its voluptuous curves eventually encourage us to continue making our own tracks through the snow.

Averting our eyes, we tour out of the aspen grove into an open meadow and make a series of sensuous arcs down to the valley floor. After all, skier or artist, there’s nothing better than leaving your mark on virgin terrain.

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